Cincinnati Bearcats football: Four position battles that should shake out at Higher Ground

Fletcher Page
Cincinnati Enquirer

WEST HARRISON, Indiana — The Cincinnati football team held the first practice of its annual two-plus week stay at the Higher Ground Conference & Retreat Center on Saturday. 

It's clear through the first four days of training camp: The Bearcats have plenty of positions of power. Running back, safety, tight end and quarterback would be among that group. 

But here's a few positions in question that could shake out in August while UC is away from home in all-football mode: 

Right tackle

The offensive line appears to be in solid shape with left tackle Chris Ferguson, left guard Jeremy Cooper, center Jakari Robinson and right guard Morgan James in line to start. The right tackle position, however, is still up for grabs. 

The coaching staff has expressed no outward concern at this point. Remember, last season's starting left tackle Dino Boyd got a late start to camp and Chris Ferguson came essentially from off the radar to secure the right tackle spot. 

With Ferguson moved to the left side, redshirt sophomore Vincent McConnell, redshirt freshman Lorenz Metz and junior Darius Harper are the candidates for the right tackle job. 

"We're giving a couple different guys shots there," said Bearcats' offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock. "Three guys right now, which may be one too many. As we go through camp we'll have to make a decision with the top two. We've tried to give each one of those guys a day starting with the ones so we can truly evaluate where we're at and the competition that we're going against. It's been very good. I think there's more than one there, which is good. That's what we want: quality depth and competition that makes each other better. That's what those guys are doing a good job."

McConnell and Harper have also spent time as the backup left tackle.  

Defensive tackle

For a team that returns so much production, the interior of the defensive line was depleted when Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland exhausted eligibility and moved on to the NFL. That left newcomer d-line assistant Chad Wilt with a challenge for his first year on staff. 

Or, according to his positive take, you could call it an opportunity. 

"No one person has to replace a person," Wilt said. "First off, Cortez and Copeland were leaders and the examples of values and culture of the program you want to have. Nobody has to replace them individually on their own. They were also great players with the production they had. No one person has to replace that. We as a unit have to replace it. We have to find ways to replace that." 

So far in camp, junior Elijah Ponder and sophomore Jabari Taylor have spent time with the No. 1 defense and juniors Marcus Brown and Curtis Brooks have gotten plenty of reps, too. 

"We as unit, as a group, have to all rise to the challenge," Wilt said. "If that means it takes nine guys to get the same production, that's fine. Ones and twos, that's irrelevant. We're all going to play. There's opportunities for guys." 

Wide receiver

This much is true for the Bearcats' wide receiver unit: There's plenty of bodies to work with. 

The question is: Who will emerge? According to Denbrock, wide receiver is the missing piece to a completely balanced offense. 

"That's really for us what I think could make the the explosiveness that we showed last year go up," he said. "That could probably be the biggest leap in who we are if we just have somebody on the outside that can make those plays for us consistently."

A handful of players have had flashes during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 this week, including senior Rashad Mendaris, sophomore Jayshon Jackson, junior Malick Mbodj and sophomores Trent Cloud and Alec Pierce.

Pierce, a 6-foot-3, 212-pound Glen Ellyn product, has had his share of moments. 

"The thing about Alec that he proved in the spring was consistency," said Bearcats coach Luke Fickell. "He's a highly intelligent kid that you know over time is going to continue to get better. He's a hard worker." 

A group of newcomers, including Ohio State transfer Blue Smith (still awaiting word of immediate eligibility from the NCAA) have shown potential, too. 

"We're looking for consistency more than anything else, a guy that day in and day out when we put him in those matchups he can win them," Denbrock said. "It's been great for our wide receivers because we've got some really quality guys in the secondary. The work we get everyday against those guys helps their level of play go up, so I think we're going to find what we need there. And the great thing about what we do here is we're versatile enough to move the chess pieces around however we need to. I think there's a lot of quality there. I think it's just go to be refined a little there and see who rises to the top."  


There's a three-way competition for the job to kick it through the uprights this season. Sophomore Cole Smith, senior Ryan Jones and graduate transfer Sam Crosa have a rotation each practice. Two take turns each day with one sitting out for rest. 

"There's three guys that we're going to continue to roll through," Fickell said. "A little bit like the wide receiver position, you know. Hopefully at the end of the camp and the kick scrimmages that we have we're going to put as much pressure on these guys as we possible can and see who will perform." 

Smith connected on just 5 of 12 field goals and 54-for-56 on extra points as a freshman last season. Jones was 5-for-5 on extra points in the Military Bowl after taking the starting job. Crosa was 10-for-14 on field goals with a long of 44 yards last season at Western Illinois. 

"Got a plan for it and we're going to stick to the plan," Fickell said. "Hopefully it's a tough decision for us based on everybody performing well." 

Cincinnati Bearcats offensive lineman Vincent McConnell (77) blocks Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Michael Pitts (43) during Cincinnati Bearcats football practice Wednesday, July 31, 2019, at the University of Cincinnati.